Wi-Fi in the Friendly Skies

If you’re a frequent traveler and I tell you I’m writing this on a United Airlines flight with Wi-Fi, then you won’t be surprised when I tell you I did a little happy dance this morning. (This is a figurative happy dance, of course: Even Economy Plus wouldn’t have the legroom for an actual jig. Wi-Fi on United.) Apparently, I scored one of only 103 aircraft in the United fleet that is currently Wi-Fi-equipped. Incidentally, my A320 was also outfitted with UA’s new seat design, which I found comfortable and smart.

United was one of the very last airlines to join the Wi-Fi party, a fact their management has spun as a plus: “We were able to leapfrog over old, land-based technology.” According to United’s website, domestic flights with Wi-Fi use Gogo, the largest industry’s provider, but I did not see the Gogo branding so prevalent on other airlines. United also boasts that it was the first airline to use satellite service, enabling full connectivity on transoceanic flights.

The cost of my San Francisco to Chicago service was $9.99, which seemed a fair price. The cost is computed based on length of flight, though exactly how this calculation is arrived at is not disclosed. United has a neat perk for Mileage Plus members: You can switch devices without paying extra. I’m not sure why you’d need that, but it’s the first I’ve seen of this option.

Gogo-branded Wi-Fi on other airlines uses a similar sliding fee, with transcontinental flights coming in at up to $26. (Tip: Buy a pass online before flying for $14. Other insights on Wi-Fi from business travel writer Chris McGinnis are here.) The best Wi-Fi value, though, is $8 on Southwest, and it’s good for a 24-hour period. Since my last excursion on Southwest involved three flights in one day, that setup made all the difference.

While inflight usage is reported low (I’ve seen estimates at 8 to 13 percent of passengers on any given flight where Wi-Fi is available), when you need it, you need it. Like today, for me. Yes, I occasionally breathe a guilty sigh of relief when I get on a plane without it. “Gosh, I’d like to work, but I guess I’ll need to read this novel instead.” But when the stars align–a deadline looms, it’s a long flight, and I spot the Wi-Fi logo as I board–well, it’s time to log on at 10,000 feet.

Post Script: If you’re a frequent traveler and I tell you I’m writing this on a United Airlines flight with Wi-Fi…then you won’t be surprised to learn that the system failed as I wrote the last paragraph. WordPress hadn’t saved most of the post, and I was forced to rewrite after landing. Sigh.